Search This Blog

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Remarkable Voice of Judy Collins, Master of the Modern Art Song

The Remarkable Voice of Judy Collins, Master of the Modern Art Song

By Professor Nathan Bernstein


It is a pleasure to introduce today’s guest writer, Professor Nathan Bernstein.  Many readers, who follow great singers and historical operatic recordings on Youtube, will certainly know our author, although not by his real name.  Many will have read the erudite and highly detailed comments of Professor Bernstein, whose Youtube pseudonym is ‘Meltzerboy,” and who signs himself as “Nate.”  In fact, Professor Bernstein possesses a truly formidable knowledge of old classical singers and equally antique recordings.  He and I have conversed often and over a long period of time on Youtube, and I confess that I have learned a lot in so doing!  We both share a particular love of two singers:  Amelita Galli-Curci, and—strange as it may at first seem—Judy Collins.  I believe it dawned on both of us at about the same that “folk singer” is simply an inadequate term to describe the amazing Judy Collins.  She is so much more than that—her music is both intellectual and sophisticated, and often easily on a par with the music of Schumann and Schubert.  She is in fact a master of the modern art song, and her presentations are superlative.  She possesses an extraordinary voice and certainly belongs in the company of the singers one finds on Great Opera Singers!    Edmund StAustell



     Those who experienced the era of social protest and revolution in the 1960's are no doubt familiar with the voice and singing of Judy Collins, one of the pioneer folk divas of that turbulent period in American history. Folk music, at least as it manifested itself in the United States, was inextricably linked to liberal and leftist causes, although, as Judy Collins' famous contemporary, Joan Baez, once stated, half her songs are a call to activism while the other half serve as a means of escape from the social and political injustices of the times.

     For myself, the first time I heard the voice of Judy Collins in performance was in the 1970's at an outdoor venue: to be exact, Manhattan's Central Park. I clearly remember eagerly waiting in line clutching my ticket, wondering how she would sound live as compared to her voice on records. With many singers, one's first live contact is slightly disappointing since, as most of you may know, modern recordings are the product of several takes, splicing, and many other technological marvels, all of which are designed to package an artist at her absolute best. Therefore, I had my doubts. But all at once I and others waiting on line were treated to the sound of Judy's voice as she was rehearsing a few lines of Leonard Cohen's song "Story of Isaac." My immediate thought was that her voice sounded stronger, fuller, and more beautiful than it had on recordings, and the ensuing concert only confirmed my initial impression.

     How best to describe the voice and singing style of Judy Collins? With respect to the voice itself, one might say it is nearly vibrato-less, silvery, and equalized in all its registers. There is no forcing of tone yet it can at all times be easily and clearly heard without any interfering fuzz. Further, the diction is impeccable and the singing is artistic in that it avoids cheap effects and reveals the musicality as well as musicianship of the singer.  Here is one of her most popular and best-loved songs, “Both Sides Now:”

Sophisticated lyrics and stunning vocalism!  A truly beautiful song, magisterially delivered!

     Judy Collins had originally studied classical piano (similar to opera singers such as Amelita Galli-Curci and Lily Pons) and indeed gave performances of Mozart and Rachmaninoff compositions in public when she was still in her teens. Her piano teacher was one of the first women conductors, Dr. Antonia Brico, about whom Judy later produced an award-nominated documentary. Moreover, Judy grew up in a musical household: her mother played the piano, while her blind father, Chuck Collins, was a well-known radio personality and performer who specialized in the songs of Rodgers and Hart. So how did Judy Collins gravitate from performing the classical piano compositions of Mozart, Debussy, Ravel, and Rachmaninoff, as well as Broadway tunes, to singing folk music?  There were probably several forces at work, but, according to her own testimony, when she first heard Jo Stafford singing "Barbara Allen" on the radio, she was instantly hooked. At the start, Judy Collins was a folksinger pure and simple, performing traditional Irish, Scottish, and English ballads as well as the music of "city" songwriters, such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, and several others. She was instrumental in popularizing the songs of Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, in particular, before either of them had record contracts or performed their own compositions on stage. Indeed, she was responsible for Leonard Cohen's career as a performer. In the late 1960's, she was led to her one and only voice teacher, Max Margulies, to whom she admits to owing her vocal prowess and longevity. It was Margulies who shaped her voice from one of a rough (but still beautiful) alto to that of a shimmering soprano with a nearly three-octave range. She worked tirelessly with Margulies on equalizing her registers from top to bottom, on that elusive element of all great singers called phrasing, and on what Margulies spoke of as "clarity."  It was the same method he instilled in the classical singers he taught and coached. Here is an absolute classic of phrasing and style, as well as brilliant musicality.  Written by Collins herself, the astonishing “My Father:”

     From that point on, Judy evolved into a chanteuse and song stylist, who would sing not only traditional folk music but Broadway show tunes, art songs of composers such as Ned Rorem, popular music, and songs that can legitimately be called art songs. My next selection is a personal favorite from Judy's earlier years as a balladeer, which she has been reintroducing in several of her concerts of late.  In the heart-breaking “Hills of Shiloh" one can hear the deeper alto quality of Judy's voice at the time:


     Apart from her professional acclaim as an accomplished singer and performer, Judy Collins has had more than her share of personal misfortune, including being stricken with polio as a child, a bout of tuberculosis in her twenties, bulimia, clinical depression, alcoholism for more than 20 years, divorce from her first husband, and the suicide of her son, her only child, at the age of 33. Through it all, however, she has managed to persevere with grace and dignity due, in large measure, to the healing power of her singing, performing, and writing in her journal. She has also become a spokesperson for suicide survivors and those who suffer from the disease of alcoholism.

Finally, a piece composed by Judy Collins called "Home Before Dark."










Sunday, September 8, 2013

David Daniels' OSCAR: A REVIEW

Dear Readers:  I am privileged to count, among my acquaintances, many distinguished connoisseurs of great music.  Regular readers of our comments section will recognize today's author by his nom de plume JING, which I respect here.  Let me say only that I have known our author since our university days together, lo these many years (half a century)!, and we share more than a few happy memories.  Today our author reviews the opera Oscar, starring his friend David Daniels, the internationally recognized alto whose work will be familiar to all my readers.  -- Edmund St.Austell


I an not a music reviewer.  I am a retired protestant clergyman.  I am someone who loves opera (as well as other forms of classical theater.) I am a person who has, over my 71 years, sung and acted in high school and college, and professionally and in summer stock and community theater.  I have happily performed in many a church basement and nursing home.  While watching old movies on Turner Classic Movies, I regularly see famous singers and actors I have performed with, but who, unfortunately, few people remember (which means I am not always believed.) These are biases of mine you should be aware of: I love opera and live theater and believe that any critical comments of any production ought to be grounded in humility and gratitude for those who care enough about art to take the risks and make the sacrifices necessary to put something on stage.  This applies especially to new compositions.  I am impatient with anyone who thinks he or she knows enough to correctly predict the ultimate fate of long-term survival of any new work.  My own ultimate critical criteria when I attend the opera are that I stay awake, that I don't lose interest, that I trust I know it in my gut when something is "good" when I continue to be haunted by it.  I remain haunted by productions I have seen sixty years ago.  My final bias is that David Daniels has been a good, kind and generous friend of my wife Lois and me for fifteen years.  Star-struck?  You bet.  But that friendship has provided me with a window into the heart and soul of a person who is at once: pure artist, great performer, down to earth friend, gracious human being, and, importantly, an extraordinarily courageous advocate for gay rights, not only through what he says, but how he lives his life day to day.


Music: Theodore Morrison

Text: John Cox and Theodore Morrison

World Premiere at Santa Fe Opera

July 27, 2013


Countertenor David Daniels is a down-to-earth and gracious man with a ready and often raucous sense of humor. And at heart, he is a dedicated artist and gay man. For David, who experienced his share of suffering growing up gay in the South, to appear as the first openly gay opera singer to portray the gay title character of a new opera, one written expressly for him, has been a powerful experience. My wife, Lois, and I were fortunate to see his performance in “Oscar” and spend some time with him one weekend in August.  In conversation, one can sense how intensely he feels about playing the character of Oscar Wilde. He puts it simply, “It has changed me.” I said to him, “This feels like you are a part of something that is more than this opera.” He answered, “You know what? About 20% of it is this opera.”




Oscar Wilde was the “superstar” of late Victorian London, and his fame was complex and precarious. In part it was due to polite society’s uneasiness about his sexual persona (he was married with two children). He was also the public face of the Aesthetic Movement. “The aesthetes’” message was that art has no other purpose than to uplift the human soul through beauty alone. Art for art’s sake. That message offended many Victorians who believed that art must be, above all, morally elevating. Nevertheless, such moralists found it impossible to take their eyes off the messenger – a sensational young wit in elegant velvet attire, foppish hair style, lace cuffs, knee-pants and buckled shoes, who was also a stunning conversationalist, brilliant literary critic and poet, and undoubtedly the greatest comic playwright England had seen in a hundred years. Wilde sat atop a fragile perch. Something was bound to happen. And  in 1895, while still basking in the extraordinary success of “The Importance of Being Ernest,” his tumble began. John Cox writes the following in the program notes for “Oscar.”


“The common perception of Oscar Wilde is as a great writer and notorious homosexual. We wish in our opera to accept this duality and modulate it into a perception of him as a tragic hero. The greatness required to qualify for such an upgrade is evident in his brilliant career. As playwright, novelist, poet, journalist, wit, and public personality, he was at least the equal of any contemporary. What we offer here is testimony, suitably inflected for the theater, of the events that turned his comedy to tragedy, plunging him into a purgatory of social humiliation and physical suffering through imprisonment with hard labor, thence to discard him as a spent husk. His resurgence from victim to hero came only posthumously.”


This is the frame the opera’s creators chose in order to make dramatic sense out of Wilde’s life, especially its final years. How did all this happen? Cox continues:

 “The gods always prescribe a nemesis to the protagonist in order to engineer his downfall. Oscar’s nemesis took the beautiful form of Lord Alfred Douglas. Bosie Douglas was the youngest son of the Marquess of Queensbury, and they despised one another.  Oscar soon found himself in the cross fire of their enmity when Queensberry raised public objection to Oscar’s relationship with his son, imputing a sexual basis to it. Bosie forced Oscar to sue Queensberry for libel, hoping thereby to disgrace him, but Queensberry won the case, so that disgrace fell on Oscar. He was rapidly put on trial, convicted and jailed for ‘gross indecency.’”


The opening chords of the opera are filled with foreboding. The first to appear is Walt Whitman, powerfully sung by the exceptional baritone, Dwayne Croft. He serves as a traditional Greek chorus throughout the work. While some critics have regarded this device as irrelevant and distracting, for me personally, it worked very well. I love Walt Whitman’s poetry, and following his spoken introduction of the story, I began to notice that what Whitman sang comes directly from “Leaves of Grass.”  Both men were great artists whose lives had many parallels, including a veiled sexual life that their respective publics suspected with great ambivalence. In fact, Wilde had visited Whitman in Camden, New Jersey, during Oscar’s famous lecture tour of the U.S. and Canada in 1882. Wilde, a much younger man, esteemed Whitman highly. As a child his mother had read to him from “Leaves of Grass.” Whitman offered Wilde some elderberry wine, and throughout the visit Wilde addressed him with great respect. At one point Wilde declared that he couldn’t bear “to listen to anyone unless he attracts me by a charming style, or by beauty of theme.” “Why, Oscar,” said Whitman, “it always seems to me that the fellow who makes a dead set at beauty is in a bad way. My idea is that beauty is a result, not an abstraction.” Wilde, taken aback, replied, “Yes. I think so too.” After his meeting with Whitman, Wilde said, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips.” For me, the use of Whitman as a commentator on Wilde, as fellow artist, but as critic of “abstraction” makes sense. The arc of the drama of Wilde’s life in “Oscar” reveals his terrible journey from abstract aestheticism to palpable suffering – first through his perilous relationship with Bosie, and then from the pain he underwent in prison.


Following the prologue, Act I takes place on the eve of his second trial. Out on bail, Wilde attempts to find a hotel room for the night. But Queensbury has bribed some detectives to harass Wilde, hounding him with brutal anti-gay slurs, and tipping off the night clerks in each hotel that this is Oscar Wilde, the man charged with “gross indecency.” Repeatedly turned away, as he wanders helplessly, the image of Bosie appears to him. Bosie is portrayed by the remarkable dancer Reed Lupau. He is graceful and slight as was the real Bosie. He has no spoken or sung lines and appears frequently throughout the opera, sometimes as himself, sometimes masked as other characters. At Oscar’s insistence Bosie has already fled to France. Bosie never appears in the opera except as a wraith in Oscar’s imagination, a kind of obsession, morphing into a variety of forms, some comforting, some demonic. Though the use of a dancing mute is borrowed from Britten’s “Death in Venice,” I still found it very effective. Wilde maintained that Bosie was “the love of his life” - a love that was tender, obsessive and very dangerous.


Wilde at last finds refuge in the home of his old friend Ada Leverson, a writer and mother. The only room she has for him is the nursery, overflowing with toys, rocking horses, stuffed animals, and children’s books. Soprano Heidi Stober was new to me.  Her voice took flight with genuine compassion for Oscar. Their conversation is punctuated by wit and sharp observations, but we instantly know that Wilde is beset by dread and weariness. To calm him, she asks Oscar to read aloud from one of his children’s books.


Theodore Morrison’s score is tonal and romantic, avoiding harsh dissonance, but is still replete with surprising turns. For me, the music worked well. This is not a score that is ground-breaking, but it serves the drama very effectively, as words and music nicely embrace. Lois said it felt in places like a “sung play.” The only two arias in the opera belong to Daniels, and the first is in this scene. Oscar sings a brief song in praise of absinthe. Wilde downs several glasses of it (at least the substance looked green to me).  Ada leaves briefly, and Bosie re-appears to Oscar. They join in a gentle dance and embrace. This leads to the beautiful aria “My sweet rose,” overflowing with yearning. The tri-tonal nature of the refrain (using the so-called “devil’s interval”) is uncanny, yet genuinely moving. Daniels sings with a legato of sheer beauty with none of the vibrato-less “eeriness” that was once so widely expected of countertenors. No recorded music from “Oscar” is readily available. Here, however, is Daniels singing with similar feeling, but in a very different style. This is ”Ch’io parta?” (“Must I leave?”) from Partenope by Handel.  It captures heart break not unlike what Oscar feels. This aria is a personal favorite from the first opera I saw Daniels in.




Into the scene then enters another of Oscar’s friends, the writer Frank Harris. Tenor William Burden, another rising star with Santa Fe experience, sings beautifully and dramatically.  Unlike Ada, he is a friend whose dominant personality has often clashed th Wilde’s ego. Word of Harris’ arrival sends Wilde into retreat from the nursery to gather himself for the encounter, with some very funny lines about what it is like to be around Frank. But when he
 returns Frank and Ada try desperately to convince Oscar to flee England at once. Harris says he has readied a yacht to take him away. They argue that he owes it to himself and to his wife and children to find safety. Their soaring duet expresses the special love they share for Oscar and the ardent desire to protect him from the cruelty that is bound to engulf him. When he seems at first to agree, Ada and Frank depart and we witness Oscar’s genuine struggle to decide. I have seen David Daniels on stage many times over the
 years, but this is his finest acting. Bosie returns and we begin to see the depth of Oscar’s anguish. Now he makes the “moral” decision to be true to who he really is. He will stay and defend himself, and he will accept the consequences. Gone now are his off-hand dismissals of what prison might be like. He has begun to realize the truth of what is happening to him.




The next selection is “Welcome Wanderer” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten. Britten is said to be a big musical influence on Theodore Morrison. Here Daniels plays Oberon. Puck is silent, though he speaks elsewhere in the opera. This music is much closer in style to “Oscar” than my other selections. And though Oberon and Puck are not Oscar and Bosie, this shows an interaction between a singer and a mute actor suggestive of the one in “Oscar.”


 Act I ends with a wild and bizarre depiction of the trial itself. Instead of the familiar tense “courtroom drama,” the nursery is transformed into a crazed menagerie of prancing hobby horses, dancing Raggedy Ann dolls, stuffed animals, and wooden soldiers - all toys gone bad - evoking a travesty, presided over by a judge who is a bouncing jack-in-the box. (played by the remarkable young bass Kevin Burdette). This scene has been criticized as over the top. And it is, but I found it amazing theatre. The phrase “mockery of justice” rolls off the tongue today so easily that it has lost the sense of outrage it actually implies. But here it is recovered. As the guilty verdict is rendered, the music swells, and Oscar Wilde, the accused in the dock (which has been a baby’s crib) finds himself condemned as the slats of the crib are transformed into slowly rising bars. And the music swells to the strains of “Hail Britannia!”




Act II takes place in Reading Gaol. For many today, Wilde’s two-year imprisonment is a footnote to his life. But the opera reminds us that Victorian prisons were no minimum security spas for the rich and famous. They were brutal, degrading, and fully dedicated to the destruction of body and spirit. This mission is proudly announced by Colonel Isaacson, the governor (warden), upon Wilde’s arrival. Kevin Burdette returns to play him as malevolence incarnate. Wilde appears shackled and still attired in his red velvet smoking jacket. Gone now is any trace of wit or irony. He stands in dazed silence as what awaits him is read aloud:  No speaking to another prisoner at any time, hard labor, no pen and paper of any kind, no reading material. With piteous humility, Oscar asks “May I not have some book to bring solace to my soul?” This is briskly denied by Governor Isaacson, who informs Oscar that he has no soul, and reminds him that the purpose of his stay in Reading Gaol is to be reduced to nothing. Then, piece by piece, his clothing is discarded and he dons his gray prison suit. Escorted to his cell, a cage, he is introduced to the machine upon which his hard labor is to be performed. It is a fiendish metal device with a crank attached. Each time the prisoner turns this crank, one revolution is registered and retained for an endless record.


Wilde is required to attend a church service. Standing in line with the other prisoners, he collapses, is made to stand again, and again falls to the ground. His head now injured, the governor finally orders him to the infirmary. There takes place what, for me, is the most moving scene of the opera. He shares this brief respite from the horrors of the prison with two other inmates, all three barely able to move from their beds. One of them has heard of Oscar. Respectfully he asks Wilde what he thinks of Dickens. Oscar is tempted to summon his mocking wit, but at once realizes how humble the man is. Though all have been living in hell, Oscar is now able to newly connect with another broken human being. He is learning from their suffering and from his own. A moment that still brings tears to my eyes is when Wilde has difficulty getting comfortable enough to sleep and his new friend leaves his own bunk, goes to Wilde’s bedside, unfolds his blanket, and gently tucks him in. Oscar would later write, “There is no prison in any world into which love cannot force an entrance.”


Before leaving the infirmary, Oscar learns that a prisoner is to be hanged, a man who murdered his wife by cutting her throat. As the time approaches, tension among the inmates rises to a frenzy. Bosie, masked as Death itself, swirls through the prison like a whirlwind, his dancing spectacular in its choreography. The prisoners sing a poignant and haunting chorus, with lyrics taken directly from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Here Morrison’s mastery of choral composition is truly impressive. The hanging is enacted in a brutally explicit and ghastly way. It is riveting. The masked executioner is revealed to be Bosie.




Eventually the sadistic Isaacson is replaced. Wilde, now nearing the end of his two-years, is allowed pen and paper and books. His last visit is from Ada. In a letter to her, he had expressed his desire, on release, to be received into a Christian monastery. She sadly informs him that the request has been denied. Wilde is resigned and she is sorrowful as they part. (For three years after his release, Wilde wandered in exile in France seeking spiritual redemption; broken in health, penniless, never to see his wife and children again. Oscar Wilde died in a shabby Paris hotel room. His oft quoted famous last words are likely apocryphal, a variation on an earlier observation to friends: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.”)


The opera, itself, ends in a startling way. Walt Whitman, long dead, appears again. From his vantage point in heaven, he welcomes Oscar Wilde into a firmament that is home to the souls of the great, good and wise ones of human history. The music soars and is wonderfully triumphant. It is, well, quite operatic! And the opera’s final words belong to Oscar. Amazed and surrounded by those who have just welcomed him into glory, he turns to face us and sings: “For myself the only immortality I desire is to invent a new sauce.” This, it seems to me, is a perfect ending. It is as if to say, “La tragedia รจ finita.”


This final selection is “Barbaro Traidor” from a recording session for the opera Bajazet, by Antonio Vivaldi. Here is Daniels with Fabio Biondi conducting Europa Galante. Imagine it as Oscar Wilde having fun in heaven with some wonderful friends. Please skip the ad, since no such thing can exist in heaven.